The boy linking the invasive fish to the immigrant restaurant was smiling on the grass beside the Liesbeek River.
“We caught this one using a crate,” he said, posing for a photograph with a catfish the length of his arm. “They’ll pay R120 for a fish this big.”
His name was Meelyn Williams. His brother Keenan and cousin Jerome Wagner were standing to one side, holding up smaller fish of their own. It was a weekday afternoon and the sun was out. A mongrel was running in circles, excited by the occasional flapping — the fish were still alive — and the smell.
“We walked out along that wall,” Jerome explained, pointing to a concrete weir beneath the River Club bridge, “and waited until the fish swam up close. We lowered the crate slowly. Then we jammed it against the side!”
He snapped his free hand back to illustrate, startling the catfish, which jerked loose from his grip. It fell to the ground and began to spasm violently. It was bouncing towards the riverbank. Jerome leapt after it while the other boys yelled and the dog pranced desperately behind him. He groped and the fish slipped free. He kicked out a foot and it stuck.
“Be careful, man,” scolded Meelyn as they returned the fish to its packet. The packet, which had been partially filled with water, shook briefly and fell silent.
The boys had walked across from Garden Village, a working class neighbourhood on the far side of the M5, to earn some pocket money. They had been doing this, they reckoned, for the last two years.
“No, we never eat them,” said Jerome, pulling a face at my question. “We only catch fish to sell.”
They were participants in one of Cape Town’s more peculiar informal economies: a micro-fishery that operates out of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers, supplying nearby West African immigrant restaurants with freshwater fish.
“Those people love the taste,” the old fisherman known as Elvis told me, baiting his hook with snails a short distance upstream. “It’s what they eat back home.”
Elvis, who said his real name was Cliff Richards, had introduced himself as a singer, crooning a quick doo-wop number to demonstrate. He lived in Maitland and fished daily for extra income, he said. Francois Horn, his companion, had formerly worked as a security guard but now also spent most days waiting for a bite.
“I caught my biggest fish here a few weeks ago,” Francois said, spreading his arms. “A carp weighing nearly 50 kilograms. They paid me R450.”
(“That’s bullshit,” I was later told by two other fishermen. “The most you can get for a carp is R100, and that’s for a huge one. They don’t get bigger than 20 kilograms here. He’s talking nonsense.”)
“Jirre,” murmured the boys, who were listening in.
I asked if it would be possible to meet the people they sold to.
“Of course,” said Elvis. “You want to go now?”
Francois, Jerome and Keenan climbed into my car. (Elvis and Meelyn stayed behind to look after the dog.)
We parked outside a bar in Salt River. Jerome hauled the packet out the boot, which had started to smell strongly of fish. The room was dark and sparsely populated, with loud house music playing. We crossed to a pair of swing doors, descended a staircase and emerged in a shaded courtyard filled with French-speaking men.
A muscular Nigerian chef named Francis emerged from the kitchen and greeted Francois like an old friend. The boys looked nervous.
“He’ll get a fright when he sees how big that fish is!” whispered Jerome.
They emptied the packet into a large tub. The catfish — there were seven — resumed their flapping. Francis the chef was nonplussed.
“For the large one I’ll give you thirty,” he said. “For these two, twenty-five. Twenty each for the rest.”
The boys looked mortified. Francois stood with his mouth open but said nothing. They tried to bargain but the chef ignored them and strode over to where the other men were sitting, shouting in response to something that had been said. Negotiation was futile. The fishermen accepted their payment and left.
“R160 for all that?” hissed Jerome as we climbed the stairs. “We should have got R120 for just the big one. Fucking cheapskate.”
I spoke to Dean Impson, freshwater fish scientist at CapeNature, the next day.
“Sharp-toothed catfish were illegally introduced to these waters less than 15 years ago,” he told me. “They’ve spread like wildfire since.”
Native to the northern parts of South Africa, but not the Western Cape, the fish have had a range of negative impacts in the rivers they have colonized.
“Catfish will eat anything they can fit in their mouths—indigenous fish like Cape Galaxias and Cape Kurper, frogs, crabs, ducklings, algae, organic waste—and can quickly start to dominate aquatic ecosystems. They grow fast, reproduce prolifically and are highly adaptable. They are remarkable creatures.”
Carp, another thriving invasive, was introduced earlier—several decades back, according to Impson, who first saw them in the Liesbeek in 1988—with different ecological consequences.
“As bottom-feeders, they stir up sediment, often turning rivers and dams muddy. This affects organisms that are adapted to clearer water.”
In the Fynbos region, famed for its exceptionally high levels of biodiversity, these sorts of impacts have devastated indigenous fish populations, many of which occur nowhere else on earth. Of the 27 fish species found in the Fynbos region, 24 are endemic. Conservationists consider 19 of these ‘threatened’.
“Managing the impacts of carp, catfish and other invasives like bass and trout is a top priority for CapeNature. But in the Black River and the lower reaches of the Liesbeek, both of which are polluted and far from pristine, this is less of an issue.”
Impson said he found it “understandable” that people were fishing in these rivers.
“The fish are large and easy to catch. They offer a cheap source of protein. No catch restrictions apply. With the influx of immigrants that’s taken place over the last 15 years it makes sense. People take their culinary preferences with them when they travel.”
His biggest concern was safety. Water quality reports released by the City of Cape Town show that concentrations of harmful bacteria like E. coli frequently exceed guideline safety limits in the two rivers. The accumulation of toxic heavy metals in fish tissues is another potential hazard.
“I worry about health,” Impson said. “How safe are these fish to handle and eat?”
I returned to the restaurant in Salt River to find out.
The catfish were still swimming in their tub. “We sell only fresh fish,” boasted Francis the chef. I ordered a medium-sized one—it cost R100—and he carefully lifted it out the water. Only its glistening whiskers moved. I crouched to take a photograph and Francis shifted forwards to get into frame. Then the fish twisted free!
It fell and started flapping towards the exit, a metal gate with a large gap at the bottom. I jumped and trapped it beneath my boot. Francis was behind me with a sharp knife.
“Do you want it? Are you going to eat it?” he shouted.
His knife flashed down and the fish lay bleeding on the floor.
“We soak it in boiling water to kill the germs,” Francis said matter-of-factly in the kitchen afterwards. “The rivers here are very dirty.”
Next he scraped off the skin and cut the body into chunks, which he dropped into a pot with chilli, chopped onion and spices. He added more boiling water and closed the lid. I sat outside and drank beer while it cooked.
It was a very different environment to the eat-local / foodie scene that has spread throughout Cape Town recently. It struck me that The Biscuit Mill, spiritual home of all things small-scale and gourmet, was less than two kilometres away.
My fresh, local, artisanally harvested catfish arrived on a bed of rice with chopped spinach. A few customers pulled up chairs and we started eating.
I found the flavour rather muddy but everyone else was delighted.
“This is the best food, right?” said one of the men between mouthfuls. “Man, catfish is special.”
(All photographs © Kimon de Greef)